2009 / Music

Review: Van Morrison Revisits, Reworks ’60s Masterpiece On Live Disc

Irish Crooner Performs ‘Astral Weeks’ Album At Hollywood Bowl

Get Van Morrison’s new “Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl” album in your hot little hands and this record will prompt two questions for anyone who knows anything about the Northern Irish crooner’s legendary career: Where is the real Van Morrison? And where did they find this uncannily authentic imposter?

Photo: Listen to the Lion Records

Photo: Listen to the Lion Records

From its cover art to the very concept, releasing this disc hints that someone or something has shanghaied the Belfast Cowboy and replaced him with a friendlier, accommodating version of himself. As proof of this sinister plot, there are two indicting pieces of evidence. Exhibit No. 1: The record’s cover features a photo of a Morrison doppelganger who looks more like a smiling, plastic surgery-treated Las Vegas magician than the paunchy, cranky balladeer that we know and love. Exhibit No. 2: the unsentimental Van the Man we’re familiar with would rather play new songs we’ve never heard of than ever perform, much less release a live concert recording of “Astral Weeks,” his wild-eyed, seminal masterpiece from 1968.

And yet, here “Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl” is. Taking this album’s merits out of the equation, the whole package suggests that maybe business execs have finally hamstrung rock’s most stubborn curmudgeon into submission and forced him into the mystic. One also doesn’t have to squint too hard to see the smudged-out fingerprints of Morrison’s handlers hatching a comeback scheme in all of this. (To be sure, a DVD of the same is also reportedly in the pipeline and Morrison is slated to perform the entire album live again several times in the next two weeks in New York. And then there are the high-profile appearances on Jimmy Fallon’s new show and “Live With Regis and Kelly.”)

So, perhaps after years of record label-hopping and consistently tracking a steady stream of punchy, country-folk ditties and retro-R&B redux that impressed fewer and fewer numbers, Morrison has realized he needs to compromise with those who want to hear “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Caravan” if he wants a larger audience. Or maybe, after four decades of spitting in the face of nostalgia, Morrison was starting to feel comfortable enough to allow some of the sentimentality and emotionality inherent to his songs to creep into his career choices.

The time was certainly right for a little reflection. The album was compiled from a two-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles last November — the 40th anniversary of the record’s release. Morrison also couldn’t have picked a better album from his canon to revisit. After all these years, “Astral Weeks” is a largely beguiling masterpiece thanks to its Blake-inspired poetry and its baffling hybrid of psychedelia, blues, jazz and folk music. Its music is so otherworldly and complex and delicately beautiful that it offers new facets and fresh meaning on each new listen or for each new generation. If Morrison was looking for source material that lent itself easily to reworking and expanding upon, “Astral Weeks” is the best candidate.

The record clearly lacks the mystical quality that was such a pronounced feature of the original album. Morrison was already renowned for penning three-minute hit singles with near-British Invasion combo Them, although few at the time expected such a remarkable and markedly different album from him. “Astral Weeks” was a highly personal work, buried in dreamscapes and allusions, and a jazz-folk sonic departure from the urban R&B pop of his old persona. Everything about it suggests stretching out for elusive meaning. It has obvious roots in Romantic poetry and as Dublin is to James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the Belfast of Morrison’s youth is to “Astral Weeks,” and Morrison is every bit as concise. So, instead of a facsimile of the studio creation, Morrison and his compatriots attempt on his live performance to stress the open-endedness of the music and hope that by diving into the music’s obtuseness, new nuances will emerge. They succeed more than you might anticipate.

As such, it’s hard to resist this disc’s allure. Morrison and his band, which includes guitarist Jay Berliner, who recorded the original album with Van, as well as mini-string and horn sections, smartly reproduce the album’s convoluted arrangements. They also strengthen them with new embellishments and moody shadings. In some cases, they tumble with their mercurial, scat-singing frontman into a new song before drifting back to the beginning motif. Even though this is a reproduction, the performance retains a sense of the unexpected.

Morrison’s singing is the disc’s most attractive, unpredictable feature. His voice sounds like an old, beat up horn — one worn by time yet still powerful and familiar. Morrison’s vocal range might have dropped a couple of octaves over the years, he occasional flubs lyrics and his enunciation might sound a little slurred, but he can still belt out a note when necessary or charm a surprising degree of unknown tenderness from his old pipes. Amid the soul-stirring, guitar strumming of “Sweet Thing,” listeners can only marvel at how his bluster of a voice can softly croon its way through the romantic imagery of each passage and then for the outro, gently intones some vocal improvisations in between tugs on a mouth harp.

Each instrumentalist’s chief duty is to keep up with their leader and despite Morrison’s big personality, it’s a thrilling surprise to hear how much each player is capable of contributing to these arrangements. Certain instrument’s function might only be decorative and somehow, each can cut through the layers of sound to nudge the melody along. While the Hollywood Bowl might be one of the grander venues in the country, many might expect the delicate flourishes on the recorded version of “Astral Weeks” to be lost in any space larger than a pair of headphones. In this case, this isn’t so. An extended flute solo on the album’s title track sends the song spinning in a new direction and later, quietly shadows Morrison’s mutterings. A trilling guitar, snoring violin and even triangle and bells can be heard cascading behind the singer amid the verbal meanderings of a gorgeous “Beside You.” They really make the dream-like world of “Astral Weeks” a living, breathing space.

These instruments also allow a fuller view of this world, exposing new, previously hidden dimensions on songs. The prerequisite harpsichord can be heard tumbling up and down on “Cyprus Avenue,” but a jive blues rhythm begins to peek out after the first-quarter of the performance, gaining momentum until receding behind the acoustic guitar runs and cello swells. The folk-rock pop of “The Way Young Lovers Do” sounds more like something off Love’s “Forever Changes,” but David Hayes’ double bass powers this rendition with the kind of drive that only an acolyte of jazz great Charles Mingus could manage. On “Ballerina,” Morrison is the one looking to push this in a new direction. At one point, Van chuckles a little after repeating a line, but then settles back probing the song’s form for a break in the wall and freedom.

Besides the “Astral Weeks” cuts, Morrison tucked into the disc a couple of other songs from the concerts as bonus tracks. “Listen To The Lion –The Lion Speaks,” which first appeared on “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” has a clearer R&B influence and is less ornamental than the “Astral Weeks” selections, but shares the same obscure qualities that invite continual reinterpretation by performer and audience. As Morrison eases through the song, listeners can sense the singer is slowly powering the show down for the encore.

“Common One,” however, which is a reimaging of his early ’80s epic, “Summertime In England,” is the start of the after-party as Morrison is joyfully paling around with his well-oiled sidemen. As Morrison sings seemingly random verses, his backing vocalist has the unenviable task of shadowing his boss and repeating his every utterance a half-step behind the always-shifty singer A sax player gets into the action, squeaking and honking to answer back at Morrison’s grunts and groans. Like James Brown, Morrison the band leader largely plays nice and teases the musicians with last-minute changes, but avoids tripping them up completely. Despite the musical chicanery, the song oddly retains its hymn-like qualities when the fooling around settles down.

The lightened mood that bubbles up throughout the performance is a further cause for suspicion. Morrison, believe it or not, appears to actually enjoy the process of embracing his past. He’s having fun! Maybe, he’s just tickled that after all these years of working the road, often focused on selling unappetizing material, the singer is finally jazzed to populate some shows with only the greatest of songs. It certainly makes his job as a performer easier. And perhaps for a time, he and his audience have discovered a temporary cure for his crankiness.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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